Wednesday, February 08, 2012

`No Greater Pleasure Than That'

“What, in the last resort, is there to be said for February? A positively whoreson month surely, and why did that admirable adjective ever drop out of the language? Or, for the matter of that, the superb Chaucerian verb to `swink.’ It wouldn’t do in the welfare state of course, though no doubt good men do swink in the fields and coalpits.”

The author is George Lyttleton, retired teacher and housemaster at Eton, writing on Feb. 23, 1956, to his former student, the publisher and editor Rupert Hart-Davis (The Lyttelton/Hart-Davis Letters, Vol. 1). The passage distils the charm of their correspondence – vivid prose, unflagging wit, lightly deployed learning and common sense. Lyttleton was seventy-three when he wrote this letter, Hart-Davis forty-eight when he received it.

As a native Northerner, I always enjoyed February with its promise of a thaw late in the month, a teasing preview of spring. For a few days you could smell the earth, buds formed, birds rallied. February in Houston corresponds roughly to April or early May in Ohio and upstate New York.

Whoreson, a veteran of the late fourteenth century and now judged “archaic,” is ripe for revival. The Oxford English Dictionary reports it comes to us “after Anglo-Norman fiz a putain.” The first definition is an elegant act of lexicological circumspection: “The son of a whore, a bastard son; but commonly used as a coarse term of reprobation, abuse, dislike, or contempt; sometimes even of jocular familiarity.” Shakespeare used it thirty-nine times (ten times in Henry IV, Part 2 alone, five of them supplied by Falstaff). Sterne used it in Tristram Shandy (“Ambition, and pride, and envy, and lechery, and other whoreson passions.”) and Keats in a letter (“It was so whoreson a Night that I stopped there all the next day.”) In his Feb. 26 reply, Hart-Davis writes:

“February is indeed a whoreson month, and I share your regret at the disappearance of that admirable epithet. Its current American counterpart, sonofabitch (often abbreviated s.o.b.) is a poor substitute [though I like the Southern variant, “sumbitch.”].”

In a footnote, Hart-Davis defines swink as “to toil,” which the OED fleshes out as “To labour, toil, work hard; to exert oneself, take trouble.” It’s from the Old English, a straight borrowing – swincan – and even shows up in Beowulf: “Git on wæteres æht seofon niht swuncon.” Chaucer is the OED’s twelfth citation, from The Hous of Fame (1384):  Hit maketh alle my wyt to swynke / On this castel to be-thynke.” The Dictionary doesn’t cite it but Chaucer uses the same rhyme in “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” in The Canterbury Tales:

“As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke
 How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke.”

The OED offers an additional “obscure” definition of swink from the sixteenth century: “To drink deeply, tipple.” Robert Greene in Mourning Garment (1590) wrote: “That one Darius a great King, being dry, was glad to swincke his fill of a shepheardes bottle.”

Lyttleton and Hart-Davis had such learning at their fingertips. We do too, digitally speaking, but how many of us take advantage of it? And how many are able to share it so entertainingly? Lyttleton begins a May 9, 1956, letter to Hart-Davis like this:

“The breakfast table this morning had the best of all objects—far better even than a dish of salmon kedgeree, or a headline in the Times saying the atom bomb had been abolished, or that the price of coal was down—viz a fat little parcel of books. And the contents of those books! Exactly the sort of literature I love—comments wide and deep on men and things and books by a wise man who knows how to write. Life has, at all events at 73, no greater pleasure than that.”

No comments: